The Implementation Gap: Overcoming Barriers to Change in Grantmaking Practice

Melissa Sines

The case is closed: general operating support (GOS) is both good for grantees and communities and favored by funders. Further, in CEP’s recent study, New Attitudes, Old Practices: The Provision of Multiyear General Operating Support, the authors were “unable to identify significant barriers foundation leaders experience in providing or increasing their provision of multiyear GOS.”

And yet, many foundations still provide no multiyear GOS grants, and those that do only provide them to a small percentage of grantees, CEP’s study also finds. Why is there such a troubling gap in implementation?

PEAK Grantmaking, a community of more than 5,000 grants professionals working at foundations of all sizes and types, has long been the home for those concerned about improving the policies and practices governing grantmaking. It’s these details — big and small — that have, over many years, become ensconced into grantmaking “tradition.”

Consider, from the perspective of a grant seeker, how money is typically pushed out a grantmaker’s doors. First comes the application, where you must be as precise as possible about what the dollars will fund by responding to 20 very specific questions in fewer than 1,500 characters. Once you’ve submitted that, we take that information, disappear into a “black box,” and decide if your cause and capacity make you worthy. Then, if we decide you’re worthy, we write up MOUs, contracts, and agreements that restrict how you can spend your dollars, and we make you sign them. Only then will we give you the money.

But even when you have the cash in hand, it’s not over yet. In order to get us to release additional payments or consider you for future funding, you must provide (in minute detail) an account of how you’re spending the money and the outcomes you’re seeing. Oh, and you must do this on our schedule, which may be quarterly or even monthly, if we so demand!

Does this sound like an effective way to support a partner?

If leaders at funding institutions say they believe GOS grants are effective, and grants management professionals are pushing for more equitable and effective practices, and there are not any common concrete barriers to implementation, it begs the question: what’s up?

Centering Values and Questioning Power

In our years of working with grants management professionals, PEAK has amassed much real-world intelligence on barriers to practice change. Our members identify barriers like organizational culture, fear of change (and resistance to process change in particular), bias (both implicit and explicit), and over-reliance on a (paternalistic) compliance mindset.

Additionally, we know that the expanding role of technology and online applications have increased the amount of customized information that grantmakers can track, which has led to a buildup of intensive data collection processes at the application and reporting levels for project-related funding.

And we also know that the way in which grantmakers think about risk has meant that concern for their own potential “loss” outweighs their assessment of potential hardship for applicants (and the people and communities they serve), should funding fail to come through.

These “unstated” or implicit values show up as practices. They live inside application questions, due diligence checklists, grant budgets, grant agreements, grant modification procedures, and grant reporting requirements. In their current and most typical state, these practices tell grantees and communities that philanthropy simply does not trust them.

As a result of this dynamic, the work of building strong and trusting funder-grantee relationships has essentially been assigned to the nonprofits. After all, it’s the nonprofits that are hiring development staff to build relationships with funders, not vice versa. We’ve built an entire profession dedicated to building trust and seeking grants — and placed the burden on nonprofits to pay for it!

Funders can do the work to tie their practices more closely to their values, but the necessary and intentional work of cultivating organizational culture has not been an area of focus for many funders. What better time than now, though — in the midst of mass uncertainty and upheaval — for grantmakers to work on strengthening people, relationships, and communities?

A Way Forward

A number of recent studies from philanthropy-serving organizations and regional associations (including ones from PEAK and Exponent Philanthropy, CEP, and the Council on Foundations and Philanthropy California) have shown that funders have streamlined their processes, loosened restrictions, and provided more flexible funding due to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn, and sweeping racial justice protests.

However, we’re already hearing grumbles about “getting back to normal.” We cannot let that be the case.

It’s time to build coalitions for change within grantmaking institutions. Working together, grantmaking institutions’ operations staff, grants management staff, IT staff, program staff, executives, and boards need to be having real conversations about the ways in which their values are showing up (or not) in their practices. They need to be having meaningful discussions about how they can narrow the power gap, drive equity, be more responsive, and embrace a true culture of learning and continuous improvement.

In New Attitudes, Old Practices, CEP finds that “the subset of foundation leaders who provide more multiyear GOS have made an intentional choice borne of their belief that it will build trust, strengthen relationships, and increase impact.” In becoming more intentional, the strategic importance of the process and practice of grantmaking can’t be understated. Clarity of intention from the top is the only thing that can help overcome the fears of change and loss that keep us locked into the status quo.

To those board members and executives in philanthropy ready to lean into your values, especially when it comes to providing general operating support, I advise you to check in with your grants management and operations staff. They’ve been moving mountains over the last seven months to get money out the door. They can help you build the permanent practice changes that will clearly demonstrate your values.

For more on the work of these professionals, check out PEAK’s Principles for Peak Grantmaking resources, which include tying practices to values, narrowing the power gap, and driving equity.

Melissa Sines is the programs and knowledge director at PEAK Grantmaking, where she leads PEAK’s work to identify and advocate for equitable and effective philanthropic practices and works with members and sector leaders to support a diverse and inclusive emergent learning network with racial equity at the center. Follow her on Twitter at @nonprofitdork.

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